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December 2000
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Extranet Spotlight

Leveraging Online 'Threads'

By Judith Flournoy

Leveraging Online 'Threads' IT WASN'T long ago that I marveled at the speed with which my son exchanged information in the form of thoughts and quips with his friends on the Internet, in an on-line chat room. Online chat was technology I was familiar with from years ago, but at the time it was a technology limited to an internal network and user-to-user. This was long before the Internet became a platform for businesses to communicate with one another. Chat has now become so pervasive that there are many network administrators trying to rein in its use, which is like trying to hold back the tide during a full moon.

Now, years later, an off-shoot of chat technology-- the threaded discussion -- has become core functionality in some Extranets. Going beyond chat, a threaded discussion is a conversation, a dynamic electronic exchange, that is maintained until archived or purged from an Extranet. A threaded discussion allows participants to post comments, which then can be responded to; creating a chain of conversation that develops over time. In essence, it is archived, rather than an "instant message" that evaporates at the conclusion of an interaction.

Threaded discussions can be retained within the Extranet for the life of the project or transaction (until the attorney indicates the matter should be archived). That means that threaded discussions, by their nature, maintain a chronology. Commentary shared on a one-to-one or one-to-many basis insures efficient and effective communication. What differentiates this from e-mail is that all parties involved have a central repository, versus numerous in boxes scattered across the enterprise and beyond.

For example, let's say you represent The Widget Store, which is defending a slip-and-fall case in which three defendants have been named: you (the store); Ace Cleaners (who provide maintenance to the store); and Yellow Bananas (who delivered the ill-fated banana that allegedly caused Clumsy Plaintiff to scrape his elbow). While you might use a threaded discussion to chat about possible strategies in handling the case, it also can be used for something as mundane as scheduling a deposition. Here's a superficial example:

Subject: Clumsy v. Widget et al: Depo of Delivery Boy.

Posted April 10, 2 p.m.

Ace Lawyer: How does Monday May 17 at 1 p.m. sound for you all, at our offices?

Posted April 10, 6 p.m.

Yellow Banana Atty.: Works for me.

Posted April 11, 2 a.m.

Widget Co. Lawyer: Fine with me, too.

Posted April 11, 9 a.m.

Ace Lawyer: Great! I'll set it up and notify opposing counsel.

So instead of five or more different e-mails back and forth, everybody can see the same information in the same place. (Obviously, this is a highly simplistic example, but it may help illustrate how this works to those unfamiliar with the concept.)

Who Said What When

One of the core features of a threaded discussion is that it is very visual -- you can literally see who has contributed, what they are responding to, and when they responded or generated a discussion. It's like a road map of the conversation.

No other system provides this type of tracking. You can not track this chronology during telephone conversations, unless they're taped and you have the tapes transcribed. You can not track the chronology using e-mail; again with e-mail you have in-boxes spread across the enterprise and beyond. But with a threaded discussion you can easily identify the origin of a discussion, when the discussion began and who has participated.

This is particularly useful when you have multiple parties involved where individuals are not in one location and there are time zone differences. With an Extranet any member of the team can log on to the Extranet and begin or participate in a discussion regardless of the hour. In most cases, by their nature, Extranets are available 7/24/365. This allows participants to be invested and involved in the conversation and its progress without the constraints of office hours.

Historical Content

A key benefit -- perhaps the most important benefit of threaded discussions -- is the historical content. It isn't unusual for the composition of the team to change many times during the life of a matter. Team composition changes can occur both within the client environment and the law firm environment. E-mail communications are not yet considered part of the client record and are routinely purged from corporate and law firm e-mail systems. The content of e-mail --typically includes instruction and direction, commentary, points of interest and or points of fact, and issues -- is lost once a member of the team leaves. Using threaded discussions, dialogue can be ongoing and lives on beyond an individual contributor.

It is typical for a matter to involve multiple parties, some of whom should not have access to specific information. This is where an Extranet really shines; given the permissions structure, access to a particular discussion can be limited to specific participants.

This inherent security goes beyond e-mail communications in that you know exactly who has accessed a discussion. Granting rights in most cases is very straightforward and makes it easy to indicate if a discussion should be "public" -- all parties participating in the Extranet -- or "private" -- select parties have access.

While there is not a single method of communication in today's fast paced world; there are ways to leverage available technology to keep communication organized, secure and relevant. Using threaded discussions in an Extranet supports this concept.

How Would You Use It?

A fairly easy example, similar to the example earlier in this article, is to think in terms of a conversation and how you would normally start it. Under typical circumstances you might make a phone call or send an e-mail. For a threaded discussion, you would sign on to your Extranet and start a discussion by first giving it a meaningful title, e.g., Suggested Agenda for Tuesday's Meeting.

Then you select who should participate in the discussion, and then you add content, e.g., "Determine extent of potential damages."

On some Extranet systems, the proposed participants are notified that a discussion had begun, so they can log on and read your message, and if appropriate, add to the "thread." This usually is done by simply clicking on a "reply" button (often with the option to reply publicly to the thread, or privately to the poster).

This process, using e-mail or the telephone, could take several attempts at communicating with all parties and all parties would not have the benefit of knowing where the other participants stood on a particular issue.

Threaded discussions are not only useful on a law firm or law department Extranet, but they are being used with increasing frequency as a vehicle for continuing legal education programs.

Judith Flournoy is the Director of IT at Kelley Drye & Warren L.L.P., based in New York.

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